Steamgasm: Of Man Myth And Automata by Steven F. Bell
Posted by Anneque D. Machelle
Anthology, Steampunk/ fantasy
Doctor Who meets the American Civil War
Part alternate history, part fantasy saga, all guns, guts and good humour is this very decent anthology by Steven F. Bell.
We open on a preacher pinned to a rock in the rising tide, begging God for forgiveness. A boy wanders along to watch the preacher drown. He refuses to help the man free. Why don’t you use your mechanical arm? the boy asks.
From about this point on, I was hooked. The stories are composed of these starkly contrasting elements that Bell throws together seemingly without a care. The war-torn west and steampunk form a surprisingly readable merger, kept rolling by Bell’s exceptional prose.
I don’t quite know what it is about Bell’s writing. It’s perhaps that he provides us with all the information we need as soon as we need it. Or maybe it’s the way things are thrown together, but complement each other so well. Whatever the case, he is immediately engaging and wonderfully exciting to read. And while not all the stories are funny, Bell has a great sense of humour, and a way of simultaneously crushing your heart and throwing more coal in the boiler, resulting in a nerdgasm which ripples throughout the stories.
The preacher’s story made for a fantastic opening. Dramatic, stark, life-or-death, very good. The second story introduces us to the anthology’s protagonists (if such an anthology can have), Ignatius St. Eligius and Angela Boas. Ignatius is a military scout who comes across an enemy camp in the woods. We enter on him having blown up the camp, and now beating a hasty retreat though the woods. As Ignatius explains when he bumps into Angela, the camp was home to some horrific human experiments … including children melded with steel. Horrific experiments who soon give chase to Ignatius and Angela for a morally devastating game of kill or be killed.
We see a bit more of Ignatius and Angela in the next few stories, elaborating on their relationship and the flesh-hungry Confederate regime. The steampunk side of the world is also explored, showing off various gadgets in the world, as well as the science behind the mechanics and how various people are using it.
And that’s the first half of the book, occupied by these interconnected tales of folks in this steampunk, American civil war world.
In the second part of the book we move away from steampunk and into fantasy. The standout story here is the anthology’s longest: The Fall of Akui. This features warrior monk cats on a quest to seal off a great evil, Akui. To do this they must outsmart and outfight any number of evil shadows, possessed boars and their own doubts, and they only half a day to do it.
I don’t play World of Warcraft, but that was what sprang to mind as I read The Fall of Akui. It would be such a fit for WoW’s iconic art style: the cats in their Japanese period outfits, long whiskers and beards – maybe closer Okami for the fight scenes. Bell mentions in his notes that he envisions this story as a comic saga, and I can see where he’s coming from. The imagery is vivid and very constant, the action is well paced, and there’s a real depth to this cat-world saga.
There were a few typos throughout the stories. I found myself enjoying the stories so thoroughly that this bit of proofreading sloppiness didn’t bother me in the least. However, such a good piece of work deserves to look its best, and so it could do with a tidy.
Of Man, Myth and Automata is an engaging and brilliant read, one that I won’t forget for a very long time. hope Bell writes a novel for every character we’ve met so far. Three for Ignatius and Angela. It’s thrilling, ballsy and an enormously good time. If you’re at all a fan of alternate history, war stories, steampunk or off-kilter fantasy, then this is a book for you.
I’m giving it 4 stars.